Why Your Kid Isn't Great at Independent Play and What You Can Do to Foster It

Kate Schweitzer
Young girl wearing robot costume at home
Young girl wearing robot costume at home

"Go play!" These two words have come out of my mouth more than any other phrase during my time at home with my children. Sometimes they listen, and I've got a solid 20-minute chunk of time to fold the laundry or fire off some emails, but more often, my call to action is met with dissent. They'll drape their bodies across my lap or tug at my sweatpants. They'll demand that I color with them or whine, "Watch me!" as they build a tower of blocks for the 15th time in a row.

Why can't they just play by themselves?! Are some kids born with a natural ability for independent play? Is there any way to rewire my kids' brains to hone this skill even more? Particularly right now, in the thick of a summer with nary a camp in sight?

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Benefits of Parenting in Shifts and Alternating Bedtime
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What Is Independent Play?

Before parents zero in on independent play, Sandra Stone, PhD - a sociologist, professor, researcher, and author with more than 25 years of experience studying childhood play patterns and their impact on kids' development and long-term creativity - insists parents consider three main types of play in general:

1. Functional Play
This type of play provides children with the ability to master physical skills that they will use later and also provides a sense of pleasure in how they control themselves and their environment, Dr. Stone explained. "It's when children just run for the sake of running, jump for the enjoyment of jumping, or blow and chase bubbles."

2. Constructive Play
This usually involves solving a problem or making a product by developing an ordered process, such as "painting a picture of their favorite animal or creating a spaceship from a large cardboard box," Dr. Stone said.

3. Dramatic Play
This is when children take on roles - becoming superheroes or pretending to be a doctor, a teacher, or a shopkeeper. Dramatic play is crucial for helping children develop the ability to think, verbalize, and develop a sense of story.

All of these types of play can be done with heavy adult supervision, with a sibling, or with a group of their peers, but they can also be accomplished with the child playing alone. That's what differentiates independent play - it's not a type of play at all, but simply the act of children playing by themselves.

What Is the Benefit of Independent Play?

Often, independent play goes hand in hand with play that is "open-ended," in which there is no designated outcome to what will happen and children can use available toys or materials in countless different ways. Open-ended play offers maximum time for independent play, but because "closed-ended" play is more structured and finite, children are only entertained for a short period of time before they request that a parent intervene. Think of it as the difference in how long it takes your child to answer a "how" or "why" question versus a yes-or-no one.

Unlike closed-ended play, which has its limitations, "there are no downsides" to open-ended, independent play, Dr. Stone said.

"There is nothing 'natural' about [independent play]."

"Open-ended play is critically important for children's healthy growth and development - physically, socially, emotionally, morally, and cognitively," Dr. Stone said. "It gives children the freedom to create and invent, which is a foundation for their future roles as creative adults. It is this type of imaginative play that creates a mindset for children, enabling them to innovate and explore new ideas, creations, and discoveries."

Are Some Kids More Naturally Inclined Toward Independent Play?

For those of us noticing another kid's "natural ability" to play on their own, Deepanshu Pandita, the CEO of Kido, an early-education platform, wants to make clear that "there is nothing 'natural' about it."

In fact, he told POPSUGAR that it is a skill that can be traced back to the earliest childhood experiences.

"If they got comfortable with the absence of a parent because Mom played peekaboo with them at the age of 9 months or their environment was interesting enough for them to explore, such that it outweighed their desire for parental presence, they will later come to be seen as independent," he said.

How Can Parents Encourage Independent Play?

As with most skills, an aptitude for independent play will vary based on the age of the child. "Younger children will have a shorter attention span," Dr. Stone noted. But that's precisely when it matters most, according to Pandita. He said building this skill needs to begin in the 9-to-15-month range.

"They need a rich environment at this age that captures their curious attention," he said, adding that parents should play games in which they disappear from their child's awareness for short periods of time while still being clearly recognized as being around, such as talking to them from the other room.

"It's important for parents to remember the important things play offers their children. Messes can always be cleaned up together."

By the time a child reaches 3 years of age, the "window of opportunity narrows," Pandita warned. "But it's the same pendulum between anxiety of a parent not returning versus the curiosity about something in the environment that outweighs it," he said. "Both those dials can be turned more or less independently at any age." His suggestion? Create timed opportunities that require a child to play independently - something many parents having to work without child care can certainly manage - but with items that foster a specific type of play for them to explore, whether it's a jump rope, modeling clay, or a costume.

If parents are concerned that they missed the window for, say, their 4-year-old, Dr. Stone reminded families to keep in mind that human beings are meant to be social. "The need for playmates is important, especially as they age, so if siblings or friends are available, they will add even greater dimensions to the play," she said.

If, as is the case with many families following social-distancing guidelines, there aren't playmates available, parents may have to assume the role for part of the time. In this case, Dr. Stone has a note of caution: "Parents should support the child taking the lead as the parent follows the direction of the child's play, being careful not to take over the play. It is very important that the child controls the play."

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How Do Parents Thwart Their Own Efforts at Encouraging Independent Play?

So, if this play style is so beneficial, why do so many parents purposefully limit their children's exposure to it?

Pandita attributes it to parents' own dependence on the child, not the other way around.

"Some parents can't bear the child's reaction to separation and some can," he said. "There is no avoiding some collective pain on this one, but usually the results are worth it."

Also, Dr. Stone has found that parents are often caught up worrying about the "messiness" of play. "It's important for parents to remember the important things play offers their children," she added. "Messes can always be cleaned up together."

Another crutch is expecting that kids should be able to immediately immerse themselves in this type of play, and that's just not the case.

Dr. Stone said: "Some children need extra support in engaging in the play, and parents may be needed to play alongside the child and then slowly drift away as the child feels comfortable."

What Are the Best Toys For Independent Play?

Much of independent play can be achieved with no objects at all, but for parents looking to invest in toys for the purpose of open-ended play, Pandita recommends ones that are multisensory and that increasingly simulate what adults do as kids age. "We are big fans of toy kitchens," he said.

Dr. Stone suggests simple toys such as blocks, Play-Doh, and toy figurines, which force kids to do the thinking, imagining, and creating.

"Children can create stories where a dinosaur befriends another dinosaur, or a toy horse saves another animal from a dangerous fall, or magical creatures create a saving potion for a terrible disease," she said.

And, of course, she said that parents can make sure their kids have access to recyclable materials such as cardboard boxes and toilet-paper rolls. "Boxes can become part of the dramatic play by first becoming constructive play," she noted. "They can be turned into caves for bears, or a shelter for a doll, or a mountain for a pterodactyl's perch. The ideas are endless."

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